Monday, November 3, 2014

It's good to be friends with political rivals

Stanford Political Science professor Shanto Iyengar is the lead author of several recent papers on "partyism," where people feel hostility towards members of rival political parties and respond with blind prejudice. 

For example, one study gave subjects a pile of resumes of high school students and asked them to choose the most qualified candidate. The resumes contained demographic clues, like claiming the applicant was a member of a black student group or a young Republicans group. Cass Sunstein summed up the results:

Race mattered. African-American participants preferred the African-American candidates 73 percent to 27 percent. Whites showed a modest preference for African-American candidates, as well, though by a significantly smaller margin. But partisanship made a much bigger difference. Both Democrats and Republicans selected their in-party candidate about 80 percent of the time. 
Even when a candidate from the opposing party had better credentials, most people chose the candidate from their own party. With respect to race, in contrast, merit prevailed.

And that's just one of the studies. Most observers saw these results as a significant problem, including Iyengar and his varied co-authors, because not only are people experiencing discrimination in their professional lives, but their social lives are being cheapened. With that second issue in mind, David Brooks wrote:

Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity. When schools, community groups and workplaces get defined by political membership, when speakers get disinvited from campus because they are beyond the pale, then every community gets dumber because they can’t reap the benefits of diverging viewpoints and competing thought. 
This mentality also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.
However, Jenée Desmond-Harris of the left-wing explainer site saw the social discrimination aspect as acceptable, and in some cases preferrable. After she explained that yes, job political discrimination is a real and illogical problem, she defended political self-segregation.

Why would it be surprising that people "across party lines" would steer clear of each other in their personal lives? Who wants to sit across the dinner table from a person whose views about the issues of the day (like whether gay people should be allowed to get married, or what should happen to the immigrant children at the border, or whether the racism that justified the Voting Rights Act still exists) are, to them, incomprehensible, illogical, or morally bankrupt? 
Yes, it's healthy and intellectually important to understand all sides of an argument. But that doesn't mean you need to marry the other side of the argument. Or even force yourself to think warm and fuzzy thoughts about the person delivering the other side of the argument. Right or wrong, these beliefs are often core to who people are, or at least who they think themselves to be. It is not so strange that they would want a partner and friends who match them. 
...If we're now judging people more for their politics more than their race, then it means we're finally starting to understand what matters. Good for us.

She added that cries to increase collegiality with members of rival political parties is not a valid goal for the general public.

While I can certainly understand wanting to marry someone with similar views and values, she went overboard several times in her response and seems comfortable living in a world that is completely segregated along political lines. Why would we need to "force" ourselves to feel warm thoughts for someone who disagrees with our views on the income tax structure? Why should we let our view on the optimal energy source determine who we invite for an evening of Settlers of Catan?

I feel that Desmond-Harris just doesn't get it. This isn't just about having fun with one group over another; it's about blind, unjustified hatred, and I don't use the word "hatred" lightly here. Cass Sunstein, whom I've long respected despite working for my rival political party, summed up an extremely disturbing finding:

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

This is far beyond simply preferring to spend ones own time with people who have similar views. It's an ugly prejudice, and stopping it needs to be a high priority.

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